Dear Hans Leijtens,
As of today, you are the new Executive Director of Frontex.
Your agency has been involved in the countless scandals, entailing the attempts to hide the agency’s involvement in the innumerable violations of the human rights of the people on the move. These scandals range from the involvement in the pushbacks in the Aegean (1), and exchanging Whatsapp messages with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard (2), to manipulating internal reports on human rights violations and lying at least 11 times to the European Parliament (3).
On the 19th of January 2023, you declared, during a press conference, that you are “not the type of director who builds a fence around Frontex“, but that you rather “want to open the doors“, and that “NGOs were more than welcome to give their information to us” (4). Furthermore, you claimed that “we are going to restore trust by being very transparent about what we are doing and how we are doing it. We are going to do our jobs in accordance with the law and in accordance with what member states want. There should be absolutely nothing to hide” (5).
We, civil organizations engaged in the Search and Rescue (SAR) activities, seize this opportunity to ask you to live up to your promises. We thus demand replies to the following questions:
- Since 2015, the civil society has tried to fill the gap that was left by the competent authorities responsible for the search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean Sea. We have supported thousands of individuals in reaching Europe safely, to exercise their right to seek asylum. Still, in the majority of cases, your agency refuses to acknowledge the rescue capacities of the NGOs, and does not inform civil SAR vessels about individuals in distress. Instead, your agency directly coordinates pushbacks with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, even using Whatsapp Messages (6), while knowing perfectly well that Libya is not a place of safety.
Why do you not inform all the actors at sea who are in the vicinity of, and capable of carrying out rescues in accordance with the international law, about distress cases? Which specific measures have you envisioned with an aim to ensure that civil society actors at sea are fully informed about boats in distress, in order to guarantee safe and swift rescue operations, in compliance with the international maritime and human rights law?
- On 30th July 2021, the rescue vessel “Sea-Watch 3”, and the civil monitoring aircraft “Seabird” witnessed an interception of individuals in distress in the Maltese SAR zone. As thoroughly analysed by the Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics (7), the “Heron” drone had sighted the distress case but has never informed any civil or private assets operating in the area. The agency even refused to share the documents of that incident with Sea-Watch (8). Furthermore, the Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics have demonstrated that other interceptions, which occurred in the Libyan SAR zone, were likely facilitated by Frontex, although the NGO vessels, “Nadir” (operated by RESQSHIP), “Ocean Viking” (operated by the SOS MEDITERRANEE), and “Sea-Watch 3” (operated by Sea-Watch), were operational on that day.
Can you confirm that Frontex operated the “Heron” drone and did sight distress cases on that day, but did not inform any NGO vessels in the vicinity and ready to rescue? Who took this decision, and based on which reasons? Do you consider the Frontex operation conducted on that day to be in accordance with the international law? Why has Frontex refused to communicate transparently regarding this specific day and in particular regarding the boat in distress later intercepted in the Maltese SAR zone? Is this refusal to provide information in line with the promise of transparency you had made before assuming office?
- In December 2022, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, demonstrating that Frontex’ cooperation with Libyan actors with regard to interceptions at sea amounts to crimes against humanity.
Looking at Frontex’ continuous and willful contribution to human rights violations in Libya, what kind of investigations will you initiate, in order to ensure that Frontex officials would no longer be co-perpetrators of crimes against humanity?
- It is widely documented that Libya is not a safe place for people on the move, and that Libya cannot be considered a “place of safety” according to the international maritime law (10). Similarly, there is extensive documentation of Frontex’ involvement in the human rights violations (11). On the 19th of January 2023, you stated you were “responsible for the fact that my people don’t participate in anything called a pushback.” (12)
Based on this statement, and your legal obligations according to the Art. 46 Regulation 2019/1896, when do you plan to terminate Frontex’ current operations in the Central Med?
As search and rescue NGOs, we demand that your agency lives up to your alleged three “guiding principles”: “accountability, respect for fundamental rights and transparency“. (13)
In order to live up to these self-alleged principles, as well as to comply with the legal framework governing your work, the first act of your agency should be to immediately terminate Frontex operations in the Central Med.
NGOs engaged in or in support of Search and Rescue in the central Mediterranean Sea:
- Boza fii (Benn kàddu – Benn yoon)
- Louise Michel
- MEDITERRANEA – Saving Humans (Italy)
- MISSION LIFELINE
- Iuventa Crew
- Open Arms
- ResQ – People Saving People
- Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario
- Sea Punks
- Seebrücke – Schafft sichere Häfen
- Watch the Med – Alarm Phone
(1) Natalie Allison, Bashar Deeb, Giorgos Christides, Klaas van Dijken, Katy Fallon, Ana França, Emmanuel Freudenthal, Heiner Hoffmann, Daniel Howden, Steffen Lüdke, Mitra Nasar, Maximilian Popp, Nick Waters, Logan Williams, Phevos Simeonidis, FRONTEX CHAPTER II : COMPLICIT IN PUSHBACKS, Lighthouse Report, 23 October 2022; Giorgos Christides, Steffen Lüdke, Frontex Involved in Illegal Pushbacks of Hundreds of Refugees, Der Spiegel, 28 April 2022.
(2) Matthias Monroy, WhatsApp to Libya: How Frontex uses a trick to circumvent international law, digit.36.net, 08 October 2021.
(3) Luisa Izuzquiza, Vera Deleja-Hotko, Arne Semsrott, Revealed: the OLAF report on Frontex, FragDenStaat, 13 October 2022.
(4) Emma Walls, New Frontex chief promises to ‘restore trust’, Infomigrants, 20 January 2023.
(5) Olivia Bizot, New Frontex chief vows to end illegal pushbacks of migrants at border, Euronews, 19 January 2023.
(6) Matthias Monroy, WhatsApp to Libya: How Frontex uses a trick to circumvent international law.
(7) Judith Sunderland, Lorenzo Pezzani, Airborne Complicity: Frontex aerial surveillance enables abuses, Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics, 8 December 2022.
(8) Sea-Watch, Sea-Watch takes Frontex to court, sea.watch.org, 28 April 2022.
(9) ECCHR, Executive Summary: Situation in Libya – Article 15 Communication to the ICC Prosecutor on the Commission of Crimes Against Migrants and Refugees: Interceptions at Sea and Return to and Detention in Libya are Crimes Against Humanity, 2022.
(10) See for instance: OHCHR, “Lethal Disre gard” Search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea, May 2021; The Independent Fact-FInding Mission on Libya stated that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed against migrants in Libya”: UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya (Advanced Unedited Version), A/HRC/50/63, 27 June 2022.
(11) Judith Sunderland, Lorenzo Pezzani, Airborne Complicity: Frontex aerial surveillance enables abuses.
(12) Olivia Bizot, New Frontex chief vows to end illegal pushbacks of migrants at border.
(13) Olivia Bizot, New Frontex chief vows to end illegal pushbacks of migrants at border.